An interview with Msgr. John Kamse Vithavong, bishop of Vientiane (Laos). A Church marked by personal and economic, poverty as well as a lack of freedom of movement. The evangelization of the Khmu ethnic group. The urgent need to build chapels and buy notebooks for catechism classes. "We do not need a lot of great, showy, impressive things... The Lord was born in a stable." The beatification of the Laotian martyrs.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "The Church of Laos is a poor Church. Pope Francis loves us. And he told us: I too am a poor bishop and go where there are poor people. This comforted us", reveals Msgr. John Kamse Vithavong, apostolic vicar of Vientiane, a few days after the ad limina visit of the bishops of Laos and their meeting with Pope Francis.
"The meeting with the pope - he says - occurred on January 26 and was very simple. He didn’t give us a speech, but was interested in us and asked us about our situation. He listened a lot".
"We were with the bishops of Cambodia: a Frenchman, a Spaniard, an Indian. They have a rather stable Church. Despite all they experienced under the Khmer Rouge, they now have very active and enterprising communities. Despite a past of suffering, today Cambodians enjoy relative calm and have many foreign missionaries working there who can do a lot. Instead our a church is at the beginning, very poor and without foreign personnel ".
Msgr. Kamse, 74, remembers the last months of 1975, known as the "liberation", in which the communist Pathet Lao groups took power in the country. He had become a priest a few months earlier, after spending seven years in France and four in the Philippines.
"We have asked foreign priests to leave the country. First, because in any case the new rulers would have ordered it. And also because in this way it avoided an escalation of tension and possible clashes and violence. All foreign priests left the country, many with tears, but also with a lot of wisdom. There were Italian, French, Canadian, American. "
Since then, the shortage of priests and skilled personnel has become a constant feature of the small Church of Laos. "Ours is a young Church - continues Msgr. Kamse – only 150 years. Optimistic estimates are that in all four apostolic vicariates (Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannaketh, Pakhsé) there are about 50 thousand Catholics scattered across a large area and with different ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures. We ourselves are just about able to administer and help them: we do not have enough priests or catechists. Our Catholics, especially the younger ones, were baptized as children, but unable to receive a complete, correct and strong formation".
Faithful need a government permit to meet and this slows the missionary commitment down. Msgr. Kamse speaks of Msgr. Tito Banchong Thopanhong, the bishop of Luang Prabang, who had to wait several years before being able to move within in his own vicariate.
Msgr. Tito also spent several years in prison, where he lost an eye. "He suffered a lot," says Msgr. Kamse. "I myself could not travel for a long time. So in one day maybe we go to visit our Catholics scattered in the region. We see them for a few hours, we exchange news, then we pray and celebrate the Eucharist, preceded by confessions. And I do these pastoral visits: it is a way of serving our communities. "
"Our poverty – he adds - is also economical, due to lack of facilities and lack of funds to build new ones. In 1975, our churches were taken by the government, including the Cathedral of Vientiane. It is the largest of the churches in the country and is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Thank God, since 1979 the government has it made available to us, and we can at least use it. "
"It takes time to properly form catechists or permanent deacons so they can hold workshops, residences, etc ... and it is not easy given our poverty of staff and resources. In our poverty, we have already built three buildings that we use as churches. We need to build two more.
The construction of places of worship and encounter is one of the most urgent needs. We do not need a lot of great, showy, impressive things... The Lord was born in a stable. And we are content and do not have great expectations. Pray for us because the Lord is waiting to be loved in Laos. There are always people who help us. With the little they give us, we can organize courses, buy notebooks for lessons ... ".
With so many limitations, the Church in Laos seems to be moving very slowly, indeed it seems to almost be at a standstill. "In fact - says Msgr. Kamse - the Church is on a journey. And even evangelization is a journey. Let me give an example. I was made bishop of Vientiane in 1983. In the same year, an ethnic group, the Khmu, asked to become Christian. I went to meet with them, I promised them to help them, and we tried to organize catechism classes with people I could find. At least 1,000 people were baptized. Even now there are a large number of them who want to become Christian, at least a few hundred, they are very brave. It is a animist group, not Buddhist. The government for its part turns a blind eye because they see that we are not a danger. "
The ad limina visit, which has just finished "was wonderful, thanks to this Pope. You see that he is attentive to the poor, to us poor. And he told us: I too am a poor bishop and go where there are poor people. This comforted us. For us to come here is an opportunity to breathe the air of the universal Church, to visit all Vatican departments, but it was essential to meet the Pope. We can say that the Church has a great leader with Pope Francis, so close to our poverty. I had the ad limina visits with John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now with this pope. What Francis said about the Church of the poor is exactly what is happening in Laos, where those who convert are among the poorest in society. "
I asked Msgr. Kamse about the highs and lows of the past year.
"The most beautiful thing in 2016 – he responds - was the beatification of Laotian martyrs, on December 11. These martyrs were French, Italians, but also Laotians. It was a very simple ceremony, in the presence of a cardinal of the Philippines, Cardinal. Orlando Quevedo, one from Vietnam, and then several priests and bishops from Vietnam, Thailand, etc ..
The other nice thing was the evangelization of the Khmu, which continues. But shortly it will be necessary to open another camp, among the Hmong, another ethnic group. The saddest thing? Well, because of our difficulties there is a sadness, a little everywhere. But we are full of joy. Pray for us, for these commitments”.
(In the picture: the Cambodian and Laotian bishops visited PIME in Rome. Msgr. Kamse is the sixth from the left)